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For the Folks: Lorenzo Antinori on How He Translated His Tongue-In-Cheek Approach of Life Into Bar Leone

For the Folks: Lorenzo Antinori on How He Translated His Tongue-In-Cheek Approach of Life Into Bar Leone

After spending decades leading some of the best hotel bars in the world, Lorenzo Antinori took a leap of faith last year and left what he calls “the corporate world”. The Prestige 40 Under 40 honouree explains why 2023 was the perfect time to open Bar Leone.

2023 marked a new beginning for many of us. As we left the pandemic behind, we formed new lifestyles, routines and relationships. For veteran bartender Lorenzo Antinori, his beginning was the departure from the hotel industry after a lengthy career leading its bars to work on his very own passion project, Bar Leone.

Tucked behind PMQ on Bridges Street, the unpretentious establishment is the Italian mixologist’s ode to his Roman heritage, a love letter to the loud, friendly and jubilant neighbourhood watering holes of his home city. After being greeted by a subtle rustic entrance, patrons step through the door into a warm, cosy, yet – despite most of us not being Italian – somewhat familiar setting of off-white walls, wooden panelling and furniture, leather-upholstered booths and framed vintage posters, artworks and photographs from his father’s own collection.

But despite the evident passion when he speaks of Bar Leone and how much of himself he has poured into the concept, the idea to open the venue wasn’t a dream he’d had in mind for years. In fact, as a young man he studied law in Rome, though never finished the programme.

“I went to law school because I was really into sports, and I thought that would allow me to become a sports agent for football players,” Antinori tells me against a backdrop of framed AS Roma and Italian team jerseys. “In a very materialistic way, I also thought about the amount of money I’d make as a lawyer, so I decided to go to law school. But as it turned out, I hated it.”

Like many other university students, he took a part-time job in a bar to earn a little pocket money, little knowing the decision would change his life forever. “I worked in a bar just to pay my bills,” he explains. “It was a part-time job, but eventually I got hooked up and it became my profession, very randomly. There was this old barman – a real nonno – who used to come to our bar every day around 3pm. We used to chat and he’d tell me stories from his days of being a barman in the ’40s and ’50s. I was fascinated by all these tales. He’d always order a Perfect Manhattan and I’d make it for him, and slowly I realised I actually really enjoyed the process. Eventually a part-time job became a seasonal job, and then I moved to London.”

There, he joined The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, working as a barback while serving guests such as David Beckham, Al Pacino and Nicolas Cage. “After the first six months there, I knew I wanted to be a bartender, which is crazy,” Antinori admits. “Who even aspires to be a bartender? What kind of job is that? But to be honest, I never really thought too much about it. I just lived it, day by day. I was young, naïve, and thought: ‘I’m just going to do it.’”

With five years of experience at the grand hotel under his belt, he moved on to work with London’s king of cocktails Ryan Chetiyawardana, also known as Mr Lyan, before being brought over to South Korea and then Hong Kong by the Four Seasons hotel group. His mission at the Four Seasons Hong Kong? Argo, a bar his own mother named that eventually placed third in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022 under Antinori’s leadership.

Despite his success at Argo and the safety net afforded by working for a large hotel group, Antinori knew he was destined for something even greater – something he could really call his own.

“Working at a large hotel group allowed me to travel the world, to move to Korea and Hong Kong, and of course it was safe – and they paid me well,” he admits. “I learned lot there, but it was very corporate, so I didn’t have that much freedom. During Covid, I understood that I needed a little change in my life, and I’ve always had this idea of doing something on my own.

“But the real conversation about Bar Leone came when I met my business partner. Before that, it was all fantasies. Then I met him, and it gave me the confidence to pursue it. I was never scared from then on – I was so ready. Of course, now I’m scared every time we open the door for business, but when I made that decision to start Bar Leone, I wasn’t scared. I knew it was the right thing to do for me.”

Originally to be called Bar Bambino, a few rounds of brainstorming with his business partner led to the name it has now. Although his companion played an unquestionably large role in its creation, Antinori also acknowledges his hotel experience and gives credit where it’s due.

“I wouldn’t have been able to open Bar Leone without my experience at Argo, because working on that bar gave me a 360-degree understanding of what’s needed to open and run a successful bar,” he reflects. “I think it gave me a sense of discipline and it made me understand that achieving something takes many steps to get there, and you need to make sure every step is done well. Working at hotels prepared me for Bar Leone by showing me how to execute those small steps well and not just obsess over the big picture, which I often tend to do as a creative person.”

Perhaps it’s this wealth of experience and depth of knowledge that kept his business partner confident in both Antinori and the concept, even though the bartender himself questioned its viability during the height of the pandemic. Fortunately, they found the Bridges Street location and signed the lease just as the restrictions lifted, and Bar Leone was given the opportunity to flourish.

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And flourish it did. Although the bar prides itself on keeping things classic – its motto, “cocktail popolari”, means “cocktails for the people” in Italian – you’ll also find innovative spins of these mixology staples. The signature negroni, for example, comes in three variations: classic, coffee and yuzu. The smoked olives have attracted so many patrons that people are requesting that the bar snack is sold in jars they can take home. The menu also changes seasonally to keep the experience refreshing. But between all these highlights, the bar’s philosophy stands strong.

“Bar Leone is different because it doesn’t have a technical concept behind it,” Antinori says, referencing a quote of Arrigo Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice: “Simplicity, when it’s done with a lot of detail, is an extraordinary thing.”

“It’s not a bar that specialises in a specific spirit or a bar that re-creates any themed experience,” Antinori continues. “It’s very organic, very authentic. I also believe it brings a simplicity and approachability that we don’t often see here in Hong Kong’s bar scene. When you sit down, I don’t need to guide you through an abstract or intricate menu. I don’t need to teach you anything. The drinks will be good, the food will be good and the vibe will be good. That’s what a bar experience is supposed to be.”

Although Bar Leone was ineligible for Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2023, as it opened after the voting period, it’s surely headed for a position on this year’s list, a prediction backed up by the full-houses even on weeknights, the exceptional reviews from patrons and critics, and most of all, Antinori’s love and passion for his brainchild.

“That’s the beauty of being the owner: you can do whatever you want,” he tells me with a grin. “Bar Leone is an extension of myself. In the room, there are so many things I love: movies, pop culture and football. I translated this tongue-in-cheek way of life I believe in into this bar. I’ll play the UEFA Champions League theme song right after “Hallelujah”, and I’m not even religious. I just find it funny to mix these two things that are sacred to Italians in very different ways. That is the story I want Bar Leone to tell.”

Source: Prestige Online

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